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Ill-Equipped? (Who Isn't)

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Jennifer Lehr answers your questions about sex, love, and relationships.

QUESTION:

Dear Jennifer,

I've always been "out," and have been comfortable with the idea. When I moved to Louisiana though, it became much harder. My partner and I live in a very religious, prejudice, bigoted corner of the world. Should I continue to be who I am, or should I start hiding to keep the peace?
--Angela

ANSWER:

Oh gosh Angela! How terrible. I'm so curious, why did you have to move there? It's gotta be something like a very lucrative job or an ailing parent. Why else would you subject yourself to a world where you think you would have to hide who you are in order to lead a "peaceful" life.

I put "peaceful" in quotes because I don't think living a life where you are denying who you are can be peaceful. Inside, I think you'll perpetually be in a state of internal unrest--at best.

Now Angela, my answers to readers' question usually come from personal experience. In this case, I thought, "When have I been discriminated against? How did I respond?" And, really even though I'm Jewish, I've been fortunate not to have encountered anti-Semitism in any significant
way. However, I do know what it's like to be rejected for being myself in a small, tight-knit community and it SUCKS.

Ten years ago I was in art school--what one would think as the exact opposite of a small-minded southern town. Art school is home of avant-garde thinkers, and boundary-pushers. A place where self-expression is not only tolerated but nurtured. Or so the catalog says.

As it turns out, art school was no different than any other small community in that there were cliques and loners. Dependable people and flakes. Nerds and cool people. Ass kissers and could-give-a-shitters. Some people were friendly, many aloof. Some did drugs. Some didn't.
Some dressed hip, some dressed hippie. Some professors were famous, some were jealous. Some students dated each other or the faculty unabashedly, some hid their affairs.

Everyone walked around so full of preconceived notions about one another based on what people wore, what type of work they made, which professors liked their work, whether or not they'd already received gallery interest, and with whom they hung out. And me, well I was as
insecure as they come though I worked hard to come off as smart, confident and sexy. And so I decided to turn the situation into art.ill.jpg

I sent an invitation to every student and professor in the program inviting them to come to my studio to draw my face and to let me draw theirs. I included an appointment card so they could let me know when it was convenient for them to come. I also explained that as a thank-you for their participation, each person would receive a book with all the drawings. However, I added on the rsvp card, "Should you choose not to participate, please know that your page in the book will be blank--with your name on it." I was surprised that some saw this caveat as a threat--as if the worst thing in the world was to have your name on a blank piece of paper in my Face Drawings book.

Patience Angela, I'm getting there.

Actually, I saw my project as rather benign, if not outright friendly. Drawing each other's faces was an opportunity to get to know each other beneath the clothes, the art, the cliques. I was setting out to illustrate that we are all more alike than we think. We all have two eyes, a nose a mouth and if we can strip away the other stuff, we might find we like one another more than we assumed.

Well soon the rumors were flying. Some people were accusing me of using my project as a way to procure drawings from the famous faculty to later sell! Others thought I was trying to lure the famous faculty to participate just to raise the profile of my project so that I could masquerade their drawings as an endorsement of my work. Others had me pinned as a total loser who was desperately trying to make friends via my art project. Some wondered if it was cool to participate or cool not to.

In the end exactly half of the 78 artists I invited to draw my face, participated. Throughout the project, I was constantly wondering who would do it, who wouldn't and why. Did they not like me? The project? Tormented and consumed by my paranoid insecurity, I sat at my computer
and wrote a book. I devoted a chapter to each artist, filled with my uncensored, stream-of-consciousness thoughts about why I thought they did or didn't come draw my face and I digressed into every aspect of my life.

Soon word got out about my book and people started freaking out. How dare I write about them. Even though no one had read the book, they projected the worst onto it....affairs, drugs, everything they'd never want people to know about them--most of which I didn't know myself! And my life became hell. I'd go to gallery openings and people wouldn't return a "hello." A professor left a message on my machine asking me to drop his class. Another professor, an artist internationally famous for his avant-garde work, said I was taking things too far. Another famous artist told me to publish my book with most of the text blacked out. People literally turned their backs on me.

It was my worst fear realized--being shunned for truly being myself, for saying what I really thought and felt, without trying to please anyone.

But you know what? Maybe you saw this coming, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the most freeing experience of my life. I'd found my voice. I owned who I was, what I thought and felt--as embarrassing or imperfect or unpleasant as it may have been. And I
found out who my friends and supporters were. There was a whole other contingent of people who loved the project. Who were impressed with my courage. Who were intrigued with the format. Who loved my writing.

I called my book 78 Drawings of my Face and I started to call myself a writer. The experience gave me the confidence to write Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex.

Now, I don't think it is your job in life to have to educate bigoted, prejudiced morons that homosexuality is nothing to work themselves up over. But I guess if you aren't up for being yourself with these people, then you should move back to the friendlier/smarter place from where you came. Because really, if you start "hiding" as you put it, you will eventually be miserable. Conversely, I think that if you are honest with these people about who you are, that you may find some strength and courage you didn't know you had.

Perhaps, you could invite the worst of them to your house to draw your face and offer them some tea and a pen and paper. I think, they'll soon see, that like you, they have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. And I wouldn't be surprised if a pleasant conversation ensued. And really, for those that don't accept your invitation, screw 'em. You don't need everyone in the world to love you.

----

About this column:

I called my memoir Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex because that's exactly how I felt -- ill-equipped . . . not only for a life of sex, but for love and a relationship.

In high school I was a late bloomer and then found myself sleeping with the wrong boys for the wrong reasons. Things got worse in college. Tormented by my lack-of-love life, I endlessly wondered if I'd ever find someone who loved me, who I not only loved but loved sleeping with. It's no surprise that my fancy undergrad and graduate education were of no help when it came to these super-important parts of life. Where was the course on attraction, communication, love, commitment, sex, finances in a relationship?

It took hitting rock bottom at age 28, when I was constantly fighting with John -- the man I loved, with whom I was barely screwing -- to create my own ad hoc Relationships 101. I decided to do whatever it took to make our relationship work. My efforts to equip myself, as it were, landed me in therapy, in double sessions of couples therapy for three years, at a Making Marriage Work class, and in the self-help aisle of the bookstore. Almost ten years later, John and I are still together and I'm relieved to report that I feel pretty well equipped. (But now that I'm a new mom, I have a whole other area to feel ill-equipped about!)

So if you too are feeling ill-equipped, please e-mail me your questions at Jennifer@jenniferlehr.com and I'll do my best to be of some help. I look forward to hearing from you.

-- Jennifer Lehr

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